Monday, September 24, 2012

An Autobiography by Jose Clemente Orozco

Largely absent from his own life story
Jose Clemente Orozco was one of the leaders of the Mexican mural movement and an important painter of the early 20th century. Unfortunately, you’re not going to learn much about him from this book. Though he lived through the upheaval of the Mexican Revolution and contributed to the dynamic transformation of Mexican art, Orozco seems remarkably blasé about it all. For the most part he reports political and cultural events with the detachment of a disinterested bystander, and says little about himself in the process.

Although Orozco writes with a degree of wry, cynical wit that’s not without its charms, the reader finds himself wishing for a little more sincerity. When moments of enthusiasm do appear, they are few and far between. One gets some inkling of the exuberance felt by the young Mexican artists as they determined to break with European traditions and form a uniquely Mexican expression. However, after enumerating the founding objectives of the revolutionary Syndicate of Painters and Sculptors, Orozco then goes on to explain how they failed to achieve almost every one of those objectives. Later in New York, Orozco becomes enamored with Dynamic Symmetry, the mathematical analysis of proportions in classical art conceived by Jay Hambidge. Orozco devotes several pages to Dynamic Symmetry, but his description of the theory is difficult to decipher. Perhaps this may be attributed to the translation by Robert C. Stephenson, which overall is way too literal, even going so far as to let the reader know that the “Venus de Milo” in fact means “Venus of Milo.” A little more syntactical license on the part of the translator would have made for a smoother read.

For the most part Orozco defines himself in negative terms. That is to say, he talks a lot about what he doesn’t believe in without telling us much about what he does believe in. He’s against the traditional academic methods of art instruction, but when modernism comes along and elevates the status of the uneducated artist, he’s against that too. He’s against the imperialism of European modernism, but doesn’t care much for the resurgence of indigenous pride in Mexico either. He doesn’t seem to want to commit to any political movement, or even to any nation. He considers himself a citizen of the world, and feels most at home in that most worldly of cities, New York.

A certain degree of egotism may be required to write a good autobiography. From this book one might surmise that Orozco had a very small ego indeed. His contemporaries Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros may have been pompous, self-aggrandizing blowhards, but perhaps that’s the kind of personality required to pen an interesting and engaging memoir. There may be a good biography of Orozco out there somewhere, but he didn’t write it.

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